Solo Tabletop RPG Review – Ironsworn Part One

Ironsworn (Tomkin Press) Part One
Designed & Written by Sean Tomkins
You can download Ironsworn for FREE here.

I’ve written previously about the types of games that fall under the solo banner. However, when most people think of tabletop roleplaying, they immediately think of Dungeons & Dragons. It makes sense due to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s acting as some of the best marketing the game could ask for. So, when most people imagine RPGs, they think of people sitting around a table rolling dice to do skill checks and fight monsters in a dungeon. That can be tricky with solo tabletop because of the crucial role a Dungeon Master or Game Master plays in that scenario. However, designer Sean Tomkins has cracked that code with his incredible Ironsworn system. To accomplish this feat, he borrowed heavily from a game system not as many people are familiar with.

Apocalypse World is the creation of Vincent & Meguey Baker, who invented a system of rules that spawned many more games. These games often bear the seal “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA) to indicate how they are played. What this means is a fiction-forward approach to roleplay. Where D&D, Pathfinder, and the like rely on the skills & numbers way of playing, part of the DNA inherited from their roots in war gaming, PbtA games center firmly on the narratives. This means the specific technical aspects of a weapon or spell are less important than the potential for what they can add to the story. Some PbtA games include Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and Monster of the Week. There are many, many more.

For Ironsworn, Tomkins held firmly to the idea of fiction first and used PbtA’s system of moves to act in the place of a DM. This means, at first glance, Ironsworn can feel overwhelming if you pressure yourself to remember all the Moves. However, that would be a grave misstep, and this is very much an instance of reading certain parts of the book in more detail than others, letting gameplay serve as the primary tool for learning how the moves interact with your play. 

Each move will have a fictional trigger that brings it into play. First, you roll a D6 + the applicable trait + any modifiers. Then you roll 2d10 and compare your first result (Action Die) against the d10 individually (referred to as Challenge Dice). If your Action Die beats both numbers on the Challenge Dice, that is a Strong Hit. So whatever you were attempting succeeds, and some mechanical benefit comes with it. If your Action Die only beats one of the Challenge Dice, you have a Weak Hit. This means you accomplished what you set out to do with a cost in the narrative. If your Action Die fails to beat both Challenge Dice, then you are fucked. You failed in your attempt, plus there is a more significant setback. Rolling doubles on the Challenge Die means success with something extra good (if you beat them) or an extremely devastating failure (if it is a Miss)

When it comes to Moves, that is where a first-timer might feel overwhelmed. There are seven categories of Moves (Adventure, Relationship, Combat, Suffer, Quest, and Fate). The first thing to note is that with all PbtA games, you are encouraged to follow the logical path of the story you are telling. The Moves come into play when you aren’t quite sure what the consequence of your actions will be. Also, some of these Moves only come up in rare circumstances. 

For instance, under Adventure Moves, you have Face Danger which will come up often. The move’s trigger is “you attempt something risky or react to an imminent threat.” The player imagines what they do and then chooses from some options. Depending on how you face danger, you will roll a different stat on your character sheet. Want to be stealthy, then roll with Shadow. If you take the direct approach and use brute force, you roll with Iron. Using your powers of observation to overcome the threat brings Wits into play. The weapon you use or the spell you cast doesn’t matter much to the story. This is similar to the Approaches mechanic used in Fate Accelerated; it is less focused on your skills & tools but on how you are doing something. Instead of your equipment taking the spotlight and resulting in meta-gaming, this is more about understanding your character and what they would do.

One of the mechanics Ironsworn has brought to the table is a Momentum Track. This number ranges from -6 to +10, with all characters starting at a +2. Momentum is a persistent mechanic that goes up and down throughout play. On the one hand, it represents whether things are going in your favor. On the other hand, it can also be burned after rolling. If your Momentum exceeds at least one of your Challenge Dice, you can swap it for your Action Die. That means you bring it back to its Reset Value. Momentum is gained and lost through success and failure in Moves. The lower your Momentum gets, the worse the story should be for your character.

Progress Tracks are one of my favorite tools Tomkins presents, and they go a long way in helping fill in gaps that would be handled by a GM. Your main Progress Tracks in Ironsworn are your Vows, essentially the Quests you are on. During character creation, you determine your main Vow, a long-term quest driving your character forward. The Progress Track is a line of ten boxes, and underneath are the Challenge Ranks you can set. They range from troublesome, dangerous, formidable, extreme, and epic. Moves take into account your Progress tracks and will tell you to mark them when appropriate. Each Challenge level represents how long this quest should take, which is done through how you mark. An Epic quest gets one tick at a time as you progress, with a box being full when you have ticked it four times. A Troublesome quest, far shorter, gets three filled boxes per each stage of progress. So, when your character embarks on a quest, you can choose the Challenge level depending on what you think the story would entail or your preference. If you prefer it to be out of your hands, you can also roll for the Challenge Rank. 

There are also three tracks abstractly representing Harm, Sanity, and Resources. Like Momentum, these will fluctuate as you encounter challenges and enemies. Some Moves center around what happens when these bottom out but also on how to refill them when, in the story, you have a chance to rest in a friendly settlement. There is a big emphasis on Bonds with NPCs which can also use the Progress Tracks to show how your relationships develop. When you have a Bond with an NPC or a community, you can add +1 to Moves directly involving them. 

During character creation, you will choose three Assets. The categories of Assets are Companions, Paths, Combat Talents, and Rituals. Companions can be animals, people, or even a faithful zombie. Paths represent your background or “class,” but you don’t have to choose one if you don’t want to. Combat Talents are specialized skills you have in fighting, typically connected to prowess with a specific weapon type. Rituals are the magic spells of the games. In typical PbtA games, there are Playbooks that represent the archetypes in the game genre. Those playbooks have moves only that archetype can perform. Tomkins gets rid of the playbooks and presents us with Assets. They each have a trigger connected to one of the game’s moves and give you a boon somehow. They can also be upgraded as you accrue experience through fulfilling your Vows.

The Ironsworn mechanics are genre neutral and have been adapted officially and through fan hacks into other forms. Tomkins created Ironsworn: Delve, which adapts his mechanics to dungeon delving. He also made Ironsworn: Starforged, an evolution of the system’s mechanics and a science fiction-stylized setting. For Ironsworn, the default is The Ironlands, a large peninsula in the geographic north of this fantasy world. The Ironlanders, humans who settled here two generations prior, attempt to survive in the harsh land despite its many dangers. The specific details of what this world is like are up to you, and gameplay begins with completing a Truths worksheet. It offers options for categories like Communities, Leaders, and Religion and lets the player determine how high or low fantasy the setting will be for them. You are also provided blanks to come up with your own details. 

And that sets us up perfectly for our next part, where I will create my take on the Ironlands, build a character, and take us on a short journey through the incredible game of Ironsworn. 


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